Man-Made World

Man-Made World

Choosing between progress and planet

Andrew Charlton


Witnessing at first-hand the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Conference and wondering what went wrong, Andrew Charlton realised the truth of a colleague’s words: “The world is split between those who want to save the planet and those who want to save themselves.” In this groundbreaking essay, Charlton discusses the rift that will shape our future: progress versus planet; rich versus poor.

At 10.45 p.m. my phone rang. “The Danes are switching to the back-up plan,” a voice said. “Room 20. 11.30 tonight.” I pulled on my suit jacket, took up my warm coat and ventured downstairs into the night. I followed the now familiar route through Copenhagen’s cobbled laneways and grand boulevards, across the bascule bridge straddling its narrow harbour straits, arriving finally at the United Nations conference venue on Amager Island. The meeting place was a small, windowless room on the second floor. I took one of the seats behind a folded paper sign with “AUSTRALIA” printed on both sides.

The final hours of the Copenhagen Climate Conference unfolded in that room. By midnight two dozen presidents and prime ministers from the world’s most powerful nations had assembled with their advisers. Of course, this was not what the leaders had expected when they flew into the Danish capital for the second-last day of the two-week conference. They were scheduled to attend a state dinner at Christiansborg Palace, deliver a prepared speech on the conference floor and shake hands on a climate deal already hammered out by their negotiators. But as their jets touched down on the icy runway, weary officials greeted them with the news: there was no deal. Lengthy negotiating sessions had dissolved into protests, bickering and brinkmanship. Global leaders had flown into a failing summit and a looming political disaster.

The Danish hosts had convened the midnight meeting as a desperate last-ditch measure. Convinced that the formal negotiating process was hopeless, the Danes gambled that a small group of key leaders might be able to break the stalemate. Cramped and airless, the room lacked the opulence and technical wizardry typical of global summits. There was no lavishly adorned conference table for the leaders. No concentric circles of advisers, attendants and security. No simultaneous translators mouthing like goldfish inside soundproof glass booths. Instead, leaders hunched in plastic chairs around a rectangle of contiguous small tables. The scene looked more like a crowded primary-school classroom than a global summit freighted with the hopes of the world.

Barack Obama flew into Copenhagen later than the other leaders. When he reached the meeting at around 9 a.m., his presence injected a much-needed optimism into the room. The faces of frustrated leaders and their wilting advisers instantly brightened, as if salvation had just opened the door. Obama’s personal staff sometimes jest that they work for “Black Jesus.” Suddenly I got the joke. Everywhere he goes, people expect a miracle. But a miracle was not looking likely. As Obama took his seat, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, summarised the state of play. “Mr President,” Clinton said, “this is the worst meeting I’ve been to since the eighth-grade student council.”

For the next twenty hours the room whirred with debate and dispute. Negotiations continued through the day, sometimes in the room, sometimes spilling out into the corridor, and at one point in the Chinese premier’s hotel on the other side of town. Rich countries offered more financial support and greater flexibility for poor countries. Momentum surged forward and fell back. A deal seemed won and then lost. Finally, long after we had begun, the meeting dissolved in substantial disagreement. There had been no miracle. A short face-saving statement was all that was salvaged from the wreckage.

Thwarted and exhausted, leaders dispersed to face the bright glare and fading expectations of waiting news conferences. Ashen-faced under the lights of the television cameras, they delivered the bad news. Obama looked down the barrel of the camera and conceded that it was “not enough.” Kevin Rudd – who with Penny Wong and her staff in the Department of Climate Change had worked as hard as anyone to get a deal – admitted he was “disappointed.”

Elsewhere the disconsolate began pointing fingers. Green activists flung insults at departing delegates. “The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight,” Greenpeace seethed, “with guilty men and women fleeing to the airport.” In the press centre, journalists sharpened their knives for a bloodletting across the world’s front pages. A British editor inked the next day’s headline: “A historic failure that will live in infamy.” Sydney’s Daily Telegraph prepared to splash with a bitter pun: “COP OUT.”

When, after the failure of negotiations, we left the convention centre at 4 a.m., I’d been awake for forty-five hours. Many of the Australian team had been awake for longer, an exhausting sprint at the end of a marathon year of preparation. Through the haze of fatigue and crushed expectations there was one outstanding question: how could this have happened? Billed as the “summit to save the world,” the Copenhagen Climate Conference had attracted unprecedented global attention. Decades of scientific work had built the case for action. More than a hundred heads of state, thousands of negotiators and countless NGOs had converged. How, with the best of intentions, with the world watching, could something so important go so wrong?

There was no shortage of answers, but few of them were satisfying. Many Western commentators immediately accused their political leaders of venality and sabotage; one British journalist reported that a deal was “systematically vetoed by the governments of North America and Europe.” The environmental campaigner George Monbiot blamed American oil companies: “This [failure] is the result of a systematic campaign of sabotage by certain states, driven and promoted by the energy industries.” Much of this didn’t ring true to me because, as far as I could tell, Western leaders were pushing hardest to get a deal. At one point, an obviously frustrated Angela Merkel had demanded, “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” when poor countries rejected her attempt to record strong commitments that would have applied only to rich countries. Every Western leader in that room was seeking to strengthen the deal, not weaken it.

Others blamed China. Ed Miliband, then Britain’s climate secretary, claimed that tougher emissions reductions “were vetoed by China, despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries.” Again this doesn’t feel like the full story. No single country was powerful enough to veto the deal without support from a wider constituency. Even the United Nations came in for criticism for its organisation of the official meetings. It is true that the UN’s ham-fisted attempts at democracy had delivered anarchy on the conference floor, but the disorder and procedural bickering wasn’t the root cause of the deadlock; the chaos was merely a symptom of a deeper discord.

The fundamental problem was not the United States, Europe, China or even the United Nations. Accusations of “cowardice,” “stupidity,” “mendacity” or any other simplistic tabloid insult missed the point. The deal broke down because Copenhagen exposed the central dilemma of our century: the choice between progress and planet.

Our planet is home to 7 billion people. Of these, roughly 1 billion live in rich countries: North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. The leaders of these countries arrived in Copenhagen persuaded of the urgency of the environmental challenges facing our planet. Backed by thousands of journalists and green activists, they pushed for a strong global agreement.

Another 6 billion people on our planet live in developing countries. Two billion of these – mainly in Africa and South Asia – are so poor that they barely have enough food to eat. Developing countries arrived in Copenhagen with their own priorities. Poor countries care about the environment, but poverty is their chief concern. A Chinese official made the point starkly: “You cannot tell people who are struggling to earn enough to eat that they need to reduce their emissions.” Developing countries were unwilling to accept any binding constraints on their path out of poverty. “For centuries your countries have prospered by exploiting the world’s resources,” a Latin American negotiator explained to me. “How can I tell the slum dwellers they must stay poor to help clean up your mess?”

This was the conundrum in Copenhagen. A fraction of the world’s people had become rich by plundering our planet to the point of exhaustion; now the still-poor majority wanted to do the same. “We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves,” a German colleague said to me. “We have to be realistic about the problem. The world is split between those who want to save the planet and those who want to save themselves.”

This essay is about that split: rich versus poor; planet versus progress. Copenhagen was just one global summit, but it was a symbolic battle in a broader conflict between economics and the environment. That conflict is defining the most important choices facing Australia and the world in the twenty-first century.

Progress and planet

Humans have been on the earth for a tiny fraction of geological history, but in that short time we have come to dominate the planet. The natural world bears the mark of human activity more deeply and widely than that of any species before us. Today more than one-third of the earth’s habitable surface is dominated by crops and human settlements, and a further third supports grazing animals. Expanding cities gobble up their hinterlands, forests are felled for farmland, and millions of miles of roads cut across continents. In all, nearly four-fifths of the planet’s ecosystems are under human influence. “Give me a Wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. If the Yankee poet was right that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” then our source of salvation is ebbing away. Human civilisation has tamed nature, confining “wildness” to a shrinking corner of the globe.

Our species consumes a staggeringly disproportionate share of the world’s resources. Measured by weight, we make up less than half of one per cent of the animals on the planet, yet we consume nearly 25 per cent of the total production of all land plants. Humans are using up the world’s resources faster than any natural system can replace them. Scientists from the Global Footprint Network calculate that soon we will be extracting resources from the land and sea at twice the rate they are naturally replenished. At this rate, we are literally eating into our future.

In recent decades environmentalists have argued with mounting force that the growth of human activity on our planet is unsustainable. We are, they claim, on a collision course with destiny. “The world is in overshoot mode,” says the environmentalist Lester Brown. “The environmental decline that will lead to economic decline and social collapse … is well underway. No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports. Nor will ours.” President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, agrees: “we’re driving in a car with bad brakes in a fog and heading for a cliff … Prudence would suggest that we should start putting on the brakes.” The Australian businessman and environmental commentator Dick Smith goes further: “we are not so much sleepwalking as sprinting towards the precipice.”

But environmental warnings, dire as they may be, are not the only challenges we face. Indeed, these concerns can ring hollowly in the ears of poor countries, where environmental challenges are a distant threat compared to the daily tragedies of life in slums and villages. Across the world, 850 million people are malnourished. Nearly a billion people live in countries where the average income is less than $2 per day. Africa, in particular, is the epicentre of continuing human crisis. Desperate poverty, raging health pandemics and dirty water supplies have slashed life expectancy. Children are twenty times more likely to die in infancy in southern Africa than in Australia; those that survive can expect a life no longer, nor healthier, than that of an English person during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Poverty extends well beyond the least developed countries. Most of the world’s poorest people actually live in pockets of deprivation within middle-income countries. In China and India hundreds of millions of people live below the international poverty line of $2 per day – half the price of a cup of coffee in Australia. In many middle-income countries basic health and education services are weak and unreliable. Here people’s chief aspirations are for the health, wealth and freedom that development brings.

These two global challenges – poverty and the environment – are the twin imperatives of the twenty-first century. One ravages billions of people alive today; the other threatens billions yet unborn.

Those who are focused mainly on the environmental challenge are usually based in rich countries. In these countries the “green” agenda is to reduce our energy consumption, raise the price of fossil fuels, reduce the impact of mining, scale back our land use, practise sustainability, cover fields with wind and solar power generators, return to organic farming and preserve ancient forests. But green groups miss the point that many of these solutions don’t work for the poor. The developing countries want more economic growth, more food for their hungry people, more light in their dark villages and more vehicles shipping goods from farms to markets.

For two decades rich countries have tried to force poor countries to accept their solutions to climate change, including a binding treaty to cut global emissions and a global pricing scheme to raise the cost of fossil fuels. Across the negotiating table in Copenhagen, developing countries rejected this approach. The lesson of Copenhagen is that rich countries can no longer impose solutions to global problems that ignore poor countries or assume their acquiescence in the rich countries’ agenda. We now need new solutions to climate change and other environmental challenges that work for rich and poor alike.

In what follows I will apply the lesson of Copenhagen to two of the biggest environmental and economic challenges we face: resource scarcity and climate change. In both cases we find ourselves in a stalemate. In both cases we need new frameworks that reconcile progress and planet by harnessing technological means to achieve green ends.


This is an extract from Andrew Charlton's Quarterly Essay, Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Andrew Charlton is the author of Ozonomics, Fair Trade for All (written with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz) and Quarterly Essay 44, Man-Made World, which won the 2012 John Button Prize. From 2008 to 2010 he was senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He previously worked for the London School of Economics and the United Nations and received his doctorate in economics from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar.


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